Yale University Press recently published the letters of T.S. Eliot, who, many argue, was the most influential poet of the last century. The problem for us Jews, as ever, is that Eliot was an incorrigible anti-semite. So what do we do?
Personally, I’m never one to advocate throwing great artists under the bus because of their personal views. But nor am I one to argue that point by suggesting that the personal and the professional are entirely separate realms. Particularly for intellectuals–and T.S. Eliot epitomized the role, as not only a poet but even more so, a critic–the two realms easily dissolve into one.
Louis Menand’s review of the new T.S. Eliot suggests how. He argues that despite Eliot’s renown as a reformer of poetry–a true Modern, up there with Joyce–he never rejected the poetic tradition. He only appeared to do so, but really only tried to update traditional poetic forms–the epic poem, sonnets, ballads–for the modern era. That accounts for all the jagged-ness of his lines, the sometimes machine-line repetition, and the often numbing stoicism of his work. If you look closely, however, the allusions to Shakespeare and Dante and Ghazal are all there, and in ways that don’t mock but reverentially mimic the giants before him.
It’s too hard to tell whether his catholic literary tastes were the cause or consequence of his political views. Though the anti-semitic tag is usually pinned to Eliot’s back because of his close relationship with Charles Maurras, the ultra-conservative anti-semitic French author. What the letters make clear is that his anti-semitism went much deeper, and was much more ingrained in him. In a letter to his lawyer about a check owed to him by an American Jewish publisher, written in 1923, Eliot grumbles: “I am sick of doing business with Jew publishers who will not carry out their part of the contract unless they are forced to.”
That is what we’d call social anti-semitism. But there are more (though only slightly more) thought-out anti-semitic musings as well. In a letter from 1925 to a British poet, Eliot writes: “I am always inclined to suspect the racial envy and jealousy which makes that people [Jews] inclined to bolshevism in some form (not always political).”
To be sure, there are no bombshells in these letters. Readers got glimpses of Eliot’s anti-semitism in plenty of his published poems. In "Gerontion," he employs the stereotype of Jew as slumlord: “My house is a decayed house, / And the jew squats on the window sill, the owner.” In “Burbank With a Baedeker: Bleistein With a Cigar” there’s an oblique reference to Venice and Shakespeare’s Shylock: “On the Rialto once. / The rats are underneath the piles. / The jew is underneath the lot.”
As the critic Benjamin Irvy writes in his excellent review of the new letters, few scholars have overlooked Eliot’s anti-semitism. But like the many Jewish poets who admire his work, they simple accept it as one of his many flaws. To do otherwise would be to deny ourselves one of our greatest poets, if by no means a great man.